Archive for September, 2009
September 27th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
Â Â Â Â So, earlier in the semester, I posted about how Whitmanâ€™s soldier descriptions in Song of Myself were generalized and idealized, with a promise to update on how his writing changed once he got up close and personal with war. Itâ€™s hard to think of a better time to do just that. I am going to track what I see as an important indicator of Whitmanâ€™s connection (or lack thereof) to the Civil War soldiers: his naming of them.
Â Â Â Â As the war (and our reading in the LOA) began, Whitmanâ€™s view of the soldiers seems to have been similar to what it was in 1855, with his descriptions of the returning, defeated Union soldiers after the first Battle of Bull Run remaining pretty general. These men, lacking â€śthe proud boasts with which you went forth,â€ť do not have names (732). The act of naming someone, or something, signifies an affection that Whitman does not yet seem to feel for these men; instead, they are â€śqueer looking objectsâ€ť (733). Not surprisingly, this distance rapidly shrinks when Whitman begins to search for his brother in the hospitals.
Â Â Â Â By December of 1862, Whitman had begun to see the faces of the soldiers he was writing and hearing about. Beginning with the â€śBack to Washingtonâ€ť note, Whitman begins to give names to the soldiers he had previously left untitled. â€śD.F. Russellâ€ť and â€śCharles Millerâ€ť are sitting there, with Whitman watching over them (738). That exact specificity does not last though; a mere six months later, Whitman reduces the soldierâ€™s names to abbreviations.
Â Â Â Â The abbreviations are not a sign of a returning disconnect between Whitman and the men: they convey the manâ€™s initials, as we as his unit and where the unit was raised from (presumably around where the soldier was from). Instead, the reduction of names abbreviations reflects how there were simply too many men that Whitman was in contact with for him to convey how he truly felt for each individual. Despite the grand declarations he made about himself, our great poet of democracy had to deal with the limitations of being one man.
Â Â Â Â Whitman deals with that forced namelessness in an interesting way though: instead of bemoaning his powerlessness, Whitman turns it into a glorification of the working-class foot soldier. However, while in â€śUnnamed Remains the Bravest Soldierâ€ť Whitman seems to solve his own problem and put a plug in for his favorite team, to do it requires him to put that old distance between himself and the men. Like Whitmanâ€™s captive hunters that are betrayed and slaughtered in Song of Myself, the bravest soldier here is also unfailingly young: â€śOur manliestâ€”our boysâ€”our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands)â€¦â€ť (748). That distance turns out to be more the rule than the exception with Whitmanâ€™s treatment of the Confederate soldiers.
Â Â Â Â Although it is admirable that Whitman did not appear to show preference for northern soldiers when he was moving through the hospitals, he does in the written descriptions he gives of soldiers. With a couple of exceptions, the personal descriptions he gives of the soldiers he encounters are of Union men, with some men warranting entire notes for themselves. Not so for the Confederates: they remain almost entirely faceless. This should not be surprising, since Whitman was spending his time in Union army hospitals, that doubtlessly gave preference to Union wounded over Confederate wounded, but it shows another of Whitmanâ€™s limitations.Â While he may have celebrated himself as containing galaxies, Whitman was very quickly shown by the war what size he was. It warrants mention though that, while these boundaries may have affected Whitmanâ€™s writings, they drove him to physically do work that belied those limits.
September 26th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
So, Dr. Scanlon briefly mentioned a connection betweenÂ death and sex in This Compost! last class, and that’s what I’ll explore here. Why the mention of John Donne in my post title? Well, he was brought to mind by this Whitman line: “Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person — Yet behold!”Â This seemed reminiscent of Donne’s famousÂ plea for some sweet lovin’,Â The Flea:
MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Both poems express the rather repulsive idea that people are unknowingly connected through the parasites that plague them, but they cast it in different (albeit sexual)Â lights. For Donne, the unity represented by the flea is a positive: it is a sign of the good times that are (he hopes) soon to arrive. The connection is between the speaker and the girl he’s pursuing, exclusively; even though it has a sexual undertone, it is a monogamous sexuality.Â Donne’s lines areÂ alsoÂ light-hearted: he wisely knows that pick-up lines are good only insofar as they can make the girl laugh. He turns the flea into aÂ holy thing, a carrier of souls and a tragic victim. However, that “marriage bed and marriage temple” does not fulfill its normal 17th century role: it is not a sign of re-birth and re-production. Instead, it’s end is pleasure.
Basically all of those things contrast with what Whitman has to say in his poem. Until the afore-mentioned line, This Compost! has a very dark and serious tone.Â After reflecting on how many sickening bodies the land has taken into itself, he speaker has sworn that he will no longer give himself to the land as he once did. The land has been promiscuous with the “drunkards and gluttons of so many generations.” The mite, the parasite, marks a disease-born connection between people. There is nothing holy about what has been done to establish that connection; like the land, the mite has prostituted itself out. However,Â after the mite-mentioning line, the tone changes and focuses on (exactly what Donne’s amorous speaker was hoping to avoid mentioning) reproduction.Â Once the cycle of things has come around, the groundÂ overcomes its past and is blameless,Â perhaps like the literalÂ prostitute that Whitman writes to in other poems. Whitman doesn’t seem to cast himself as a redeemer here though: the earth has healed itself. This emphasis on cycles/seasons and the power of the earthÂ are another oft-repeated Whitman themes, with Song of Myself coming to mind immediately.
Why these distinct differences (I mean, besides the obvious, 100+year gap and several thousand miles of geographical difference)? Well, Donne’s poem doesn’t seem to have much significance beyond the woman he’s writing to: it is simply not one of his wider-scope poems.Â This seems much more within the realm of possible explanations,Â since he never styled himself as “England’s poet” the way Whitman did in the Union. Of course, it’s always wise to have historical context in mind when one reads a poem, butÂ with Whitman, it is pretty muchÂ a requisite when reading his poems. In the immediateÂ wake of the Civil War, the regeneration of the earth after it has imbibed so much “foul liquid” is symbolic of the country putting itself back together after years of in-fighting. This is obviously a much more somber topic than Donne’s peace-time pursuits of good times. So guys, perhaps the next time you find a six-legged pest clinging to your leg or arm, you should see what you can relate it to.
September 20th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
Â Â Â Â We have talked at great length in class about how Whitman worked to construct a public image of himself as the great American poet: When I Read the Book seems to be a reflection by the poet on the fact that his control over his image is really quite limited. Just as Whitman rails against the foreign (read: traditional) styles of literature in other poems, he mocks the traditional form of biography in the opening lines here:
When I read the book, the biography famous;
And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a
And so will some one, when I am dead and gone,
write my life? (268)
These lines remain the same in the later version of the poem, showing that Whitmanâ€™s conviction about biography (and biographers) does not change. However, there is more of Whitmanâ€™s trickery afoot here!
Â Â Â Â Through Leaves of Grass, and all its editions, Whitman is constructing a new sort of biography: it is both autobiography and biography of the Union (but I will just be looking at it as autobiography here). By creating a private conversation with the reader, through parenthetical revelations, Whitman seeks to draw the reader into accepting his new biographical form. Confusion arises in the following line though: â€ś(As if any man really knew aught of my lifeâ€¦â€ť (268). On the surface, it seems to be discounting what other men might write about him, but it forces the reader to wonder if Whitman himself, as autobiographer, really knows about his own life.
Â Â Â Â In the 1867 version, the poem ends with the line â€śAs if you, O cunning Soul, did not keep your secret well!)â€ť (268). This distances the reader, by turning the parenthetical information into a dialogue between Whitman and the soul. It also gives Whitman the appearance of knowing more about himself than other men possibly could: who else could know the secret of his soul? So, again, Whitman is tearing down barriers with one hand, while at the same time he builds them back up with the other hand. The changes made in the later edition of When I Read give a very different picture though:
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of
my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.) (171)
Â Â Â Â Here, Whitman is almost on the same level as the reader: there is no dialogue between him and the source of secrets. This also comes close to putting him in the same boat as the traditional biographer that he blasts in the earlier part of the poem. Whitman still stands out though; while his knowledge may be incomplete, his chosen biographical form is not confined to mere retellings of historical facts. Poetry can see history call within its walls, but it extends far beyond textbooks. Poetry is open in a way that allows for â€śdiffused faint clews and indirectionsâ€ť (171). That openness can lead to frustration if one is searching for specific answers, but Whitman sure does love his mysteries. What is the use that he refers to in the last line? At the very least, it notes more separation between author and reader and tempts the reader to search for them in the rest of his writing.
September 15th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
I am very interested in comparing the different versions of poems. For example, as we sat in class tonight, I happened to open my book to the 1855 version of I Sing the Body Electric, and see how some of the punctuation differed in that edition from what we had read in the 1891-92 version. Also, the lines differed in length, although I couldn’t really investigate the reasons why, since we were talking about something else in the class discussion. So yeah, textual comparisons here I come!
September 13th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
Â Â Â Â Two recurring themes jumped out at me as I was reading Calamus: obviously, the exaltation of a love that we receive different explanations of, and an uncertainty about that love that seems impossible to shake. Iâ€™m going to think about the latter in this post. Continually in Calamus, Whitman proclaims the saving power of love; however, insecurities show through the joints in his â€śAmerican poetâ€ť armor.
Â Â Â Â This frustration appears initially in the first poem of the collection, In Paths Untrodden, when the speaker says that he cannot express himself fully in the company of others: â€śfor in this secluded spot I can respond / as I would not dare elsewhereâ€ť (268). He will â€śtell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comradesâ€ť (268). However, in order to tell those secrets, he must separate himself from most people, including many that wish to be close to him. He must discern who is worthy and who is not, which requires that he expose his inmost self to those that might end up harming him. In Scented Herbage of My Breast, Whitman talks of the beauty that comes from putting himself out there, but he first complains of the pains that precede it: â€śYou are often more bitter than I can bear, you burn and / sting meâ€ť (269). Indeed, death itself becomes analogous to love for Whitman: pain becomes one with pleasure.
Â Â Â Â This pain often manifests itself as fear: he voices a fear that what he loves might elude him repeatedly throughout the Calamus collection. Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me? shows the narrator questioning whether he is one able to give the love that he is so sure of at other times. On the other hand, in Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances, the narrator is so unsure of the existence of anything outside himself that he has to talk to himself, sounding a bit like one of Platoâ€™s dialogues in the process: â€śThe skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be / these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitionsâ€ť (274). That poem ultimately ends when the narrator is satisfied with the company of another, but the feeling that is so satisfying then brings more death with it: the end of words.
Â Â Â Â Silence may suffice for the narrator when he is in the company of his beloved, but a lack of verbal communication breeds insecurities in other situations. Still, the sacrifice of words is required in To a Stranger: â€śI am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit / alone, or wake at night aloneâ€ť (280). With that poem being an exception, solitude tends to be negative for Whitman. Even at the end of the Calamus collection, there is an uncertainty about the existence of the redeeming companionship that Whitman has repeatedly espoused. In Full of Life Now, the collectionâ€™s closing poem, Whitman writes to future readers about his message, â€śFancying how happy you were if I could be with you and / become your comradeâ€ť (287). However, the poem, and thus the collection, ends with confusing language: â€śBe it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am / now with you)â€ť (287). Whitman leaves readers questioning whether it is they that he is addressing, and if his message even extends beyond the words on the pages in front of them. So it goes with our poet of contradiction and questions:
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught
Already you see I have escaped from you. (271)
September 7th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
“I hear the bravuras of birds… the bustle of growing
wheat… gossip of flames… clack of sticks
cooking my meals” (Song of Myself 53).
A bravura can be either a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it is generally associated with music, meaning aÂ “Brilliant technique or style in performance…Â [or]Â A piece or passage that emphasizes a performer’s virtuosity.” However, it can also be more general, signifyingÂ “A showy manner or display” (The American Heritage Dictionary).
The word functions similarly as an adjective, with it’s musical meaning being “Of, relating to, or being a brilliant performance technique or style.” More generally, it means “Showy; ostentatious” (read: Victorian)Â (The American Heritage Dictionary).
Since, within the context of the poem, “bravura” is referring to bird songs, here is footage of the lyre bird as it busts out a mating song, which even comes with some awesome British narration. It’s not surprising that Whitman would use this word to describe the bird song that he hears. To him, nature is divine, and it’s creatures can’t help but sing at that level. The ornateness of theÂ “bravuras of the birds” contrasts with the simplicity of the terms that follow it, butÂ together they form a sort of uncivilized, bustling metropolis.
I know that Whitman refers to birds when using the word but, as a fan of heavy metal,Â something elseÂ came to mind when I read this definition: guitar solos. So, here is a videoÂ of Yngwie Malsteen,Â the most showy and ostentatious guitar player I can think of. I alsoÂ found what wasÂ doubtlesslyÂ one of theÂ inspirations for “This is Spinal Tap,”Â an 11-minute liveÂ version of Van Halen’s “Eruption,” but I decided to spare you guys.
September 6th, 2009 -- Posted in Uncategorized |
Â Â Â Â This blog might be a bit crazy, but I press on with the reassuring image of Jim Groom in my mind. As I came to the close of Song of Myself about a week ago, I was struck by something completely unexpected: I was recognizing another free verse-loving American in Whitmanâ€™s words. I was seeing T.S. Eliot! I make no claims to be an Eliot expert but, after studying him in a few classes, Iâ€™m definitely a fan. It was this pair of Song lines that brought the thought up:
â€śI bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.â€ť
When I read those words, I was reminded of a passage from Eliotâ€™s poem, Ash Wednesday:
â€śAnd I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.â€ť
Â Â Â Â Initially, this connection is a bit surprising since Whitman isnâ€™t exactly mentioned in â€śTradition and the Individual Talent.â€ť He doesnâ€™t fit the mold of Eliotâ€™s typical role model (too straightforward for the metaphysicals, too concrete for the symbolists, etc) and Eliot does not fit the profile of the American that we find in Whitman (not very rugged and lacking a beard). In these two passages, the poets are speaking about their legacies: what do they have to say about what they will leave to posterity?
Â Â Â Â Whitman does not break character in the least in this discussion of his death. Through his physical burial, he will become a part of the nature cycle that he extols over and over in Song of Myself. His body will be equal to the grass, which is no better or no worse than the horses eating it that give rides to wicked and divine men. Death is a return to the earth that Whitman worships, in contrast to the Christian tradition that had dominated in America until that point. However, while the Christian afterlife has no place in Whitmanâ€™s scheme, his spirit will still linger on. Through the grass, Whitman is accessible to all people. That accessibility is perhaps the crux of the differences between Whitman and Eliot: as he attempts to create a new â€śAmerican scripture,â€ť Whitman must become all things to all men, while Eliot intentionally steeps his verse in an erudite tradition only accessible to the learned.
Â Â Â Â By fleeing to Europe and embedding allusions to complex writers of the past in his poetry, Eliot essentially did the opposite of what Whitman proposed that American poets after him would do. The â€śposterity of the desertâ€ť that Eliot offers himself to does more than separate him geographically from Whitmanâ€™s grass: it marks him as a part of the religious tradition that Whitman would have America abandon. Within the larger context of the poem, itâ€™s seen that Eliot refers here to Israel, and more particularly to the Christian tradition that sprang from Israel. Eliotâ€™s biography fits with this, as Ash Wednesday was written after he joined the Anglican Church, again putting him on the path that Whitman stepped off.
Â Â Â Â In short, the differences between these two men might be best illustrated through their radically different views of themselves and their abilities. Whitmanâ€™s very title, Song of Myself, sets him as the beginning and the end of things, as being capable of bestowing meaning. Eliot, however, is not capable of such an accomplishment; in this poem, he generally does not directly speak to God, the giver of purpose. Instead, he speaks to a female intermediary that he hopes will petition God on his behalf. In the end, Eliot might reach the divine, but itâ€™s more a prayer than a barbaric yawp: â€śSuffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee.â€ť
“Ash Wednesday.” The Highland Shepherd. 6 September 2009. http://www.msgr.ca/msgr-7/ash_wednesday_t_s_eliot.htm>.